Hannah Cockroft is one of Great Britain’s most successful athletes. The Halifax-born wheelchair racer has amassed five Paralympic golds and a further 15 from World and European Championships.
However, what many do not know, is how close one of Britain’s finest and most-decorated athletes came to being shut out of sport.
Cockroft, 28, suffered two cardiac arrests after her birth, which damaged two parts of her brain and caused deformity to her legs and feet, as well as weakening her hips. As a child, this disability excluded her from access to sport.
“Growing up, I went to mainstream schools, so I was always the only disabled child there and I just didn’t do sport. PE for me was reading a book in the library or sitting and watching or keeping score of my friends’ games. It was never getting involved,” Cockroft explained.
In fact, it wasn’t until she attended a Loughborough University talent day at the age of 15 that she tried wheelchair racing for the first time.
Just four years later, Cockcroft had her first World Championship golds, winning the T34 100m and 200m events in New Zealand.
After her victories in Christchurch, Cockroft won two Paralympic golds at London 2012 and a further three at Rio 2016.
Yet for all her phenomenal talent and success, Cockroft’s journey to the top of her sport has been rife with struggles.
“You’re all ruining it”
London 2012 was a summer of triumph for Great Britain and a wave of goodwill swept the nation as Britain’s athletes finished third in both the Olympics and Paralympics, with 65 and 180 medals respectively.
However, despite gold medals in T34 100m and 200m, Cockroft has bittersweet memories of the games.
“When I won my first gold medal at London 2012, there were more comments on Twitter about my skin because I had really bad acne than about the fact that I just won my first gold medal.
“I think if I was male, people just wouldn’t care that I had spots but because I was female it was like, ‘Oh, look at her. She can’t be an athlete. Look at the state of her skin. She mustn’t eat well. She mustn’t sleep very well. She must party all of the time, she must be so dirty.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, I’m a 20-year-old girl trying to represent her country and do something really, really cool. And you’re all ruining it.’”
Being treated more harshly than her male counterparts is sadly something that Cockroft has had to get used to over the course of her career.
Cockroft explained that people initially assume that she must be faster than her boyfriend Nathan Maguire – who competed for Great Britain as a T54 wheelchair racer in Rio – because of her medal count and that when she tells them that he would likely beat her in a race, their reaction is to assume her medals have come cheaply.
“I think female athletes in general are treated different to their male counterparts. We’re always seen as not quite there, not quite good enough, not quite quick enough because we’re not as quick as the men,” she said.
“I say it doesn’t bother me, but it does bother me.”
“I want to help people not feel like I did when I was growing up”
Despite these negative experiences, Cockroft is a naturally positive person and is using her struggles to make a difference to the lives of others. Besides representing and raising money for causes such as Forget Me Not Children’s Hospice and PhysCap Charity UK, she is also trying to act as a positive role model for children who are in the same shoes she was as a child.
“I want to help people not feel like I did when I was growing up,” Cockroft said.
Using her influential position, she is implementing change wherever possible. Cockroft recently made the decision to part ways with her management team and represent herself, something she said had been challenging but extremely worthwhile.
“Today, I had an email from a mum, asking me for advice. Her little boy’s got a similar disability to me and he’s just got no confidence. While it’s not a nice email to get because you don’t want anyone to ever feel like that, the fact that she felt like she could reach out to me and ask me for help feels really nice because I’m there,” she explained.
She added: “I think that when I had management that email would’ve just never got to me. It would have just been put in the bin and that’s it dealt with. But the fact that I might get the chance to help a child have a bit more confidence and enjoy their lives a little bit more is massive. Little things like that, they don’t make money and they don’t mean anything and you’re not going to get anything at the end of it, but you know that you’re actually making a difference.
“I’m here to win medals and that’s my job, but ultimately if I can just make someone’s life a little bit easier, a little bit better, then that’s amazing.”
It is being able to make a direct difference that makes the negativity worth it for Cockcroft and when the time comes to retire, she will do so without regrets.
She concluded: “I never feel hard done by. I’ve traveled the world, I’ve done things that people never would’ve expected of me and I get to do something I absolutely love everyday. So I feel pretty lucky that I got to make the choice to do that.”